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Personality

What Makes Someone a Master Manipulator?

We all have a choice. Here's why some are inclined to choose Machiavellianism.

michaeljung/Shutterstock
Source: michaeljung/Shutterstock

I’ll bet you’ve known a few master manipulators in your day—family members, acquaintances, or colleagues. And we’ve all seen celebrities and politicians who qualify. These are people who habitually engage in cunning, calculating, and conniving behavior. Master manipulators are Machiavellians, or “High Machs,” as I previously explained.

Some people are rated as High Machs while others (most of us) are characterized as Low Machs, which means that our Machiavellian tendencies fall within the normal range. While we all have the potential to engage in duplicitous behavior, Low Machs prefer not to deceive and manipulate, except when they perceive such behavior to be justified or necessary. Conversely, High Machs are temperamentally predisposed to be master manipulators. Intrigue is the air they breathe, and they enjoy it. (There is no such thing as a “No Mach,” except perhaps individuals so mentally impaired that they cannot form the intent to deceive.)

Why are some people “wired” to be High Machs? Does an underlying personality disorder cause the behavior? If so, can it be treated?

In short, no.

Personality disorders do not turn people into High Machs. We think Machiavellianism is a heritable trait, probably then exacerbated by a person's social and family environment. Machiavellian tendencies exist apart from any personality disorders that an individual may experience.

But let’s not give personality disorders a free pass yet.

Various personality disorders can produce anxiety, panic, depression, dissociation, mania, euphoria, and other feelings and moods, which may in turn trigger Machiavellian reactions. When someone habitually responds to such stimuli by deceiving and using others, that person may gain the reputation of being a master manipulator. Being under stress from a personality disorder does not excuse bad behavior. We always have a choice in how we act, and barring insanity, we are responsible for our behavior. However, among people with certain personality disorders, many are prone to falling back on manipulative behavior as a persistent coping mechanism:

  • Antisocial Personality Disorder. Cunning, conniving, and calculating behaviors can be key features for this personality type. Think of the Godfather's admonition to “keep your friends close but your enemies closer."
  • Borderline Personality Disorder. Characterized by a fragile, fluctuating self-image and a profound fear of abandonment, borderlines can be master manipulators. Their controlling behaviors may range from subtle and ingratiating to threatening and violent. Glen Close’s character in Fatal Attraction was a borderline: She started out as clingy before progressing to, well, bunny boiling.
  • Bipolar Disorder. During manic episodes, people can become hyper-motivated and/or hyper-sexual and blind to obvious risks. To overcome others’ objections, or to gain their cooperation, people with bipolar disorder may shift their Machiavellian tendencies into high gear.
  • Obsessive-Compulsive Personality Disorder. Not to be confused with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, OCPD indicates those who are relentlessly controlling, rigid in their thinking, and sticklers for perfection. A supervisor with OCPD, for example, will be the micro-manager from Hell. No matter how exemplary your performance, an OCPD supervisor will never be satisfied. Since control of behavior—both one’s own and that of others—is the hallmark of this disorder, manipulative behavior is a common method of gaining compliance.

Personality traits, such as the tendency to be a master manipulator, are persistent throughout the lifespan. To be sure, High Machs can improve with therapy, if motivated. However, they must first acknowledge their manipulative tendencies, recognize that their behavior is destructive, and seek treatment. But since High Machs tend to enjoy the games and one-upmanship of being master manipulators, they are unlikely to seek help, absent some existential crisis. If cognitive dissonance should creep into their awareness, they are likely to rationalize and justify their behavior.

If you are plagued by a master manipulator, your best defense is to separate yourself from that person. Until then, set clear boundaries and resist being drawn into any schemes.

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